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The Talk of the Newsstand

Notes and comment on editor Tina Brown and her (new) New Yorker

By Cameron BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 1992



BOSTON

FOR quite some time now we've been anticipating the arrival of the new New Yorker, and we approached buying the magazine last week with a combination of trepidation and excitement. It isn't every week that an editor such as Tina Brown, who is so routinely described as brilliant, takes the helm of a magazine like The New Yorker.

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There has been a good deal of consternation over what Ms. Brown's first New Yorker would look like, since her obituary isn't likely to omit the fact that she once put the film actress Demi Moore, virtually naked and almost entirely pregnant, on the cover of Vanity Fair, the magazine Brown previously edited.

The first thing we noticed was the smell. We traced it to a perfume sample emitting a flowery concoction calling itself "Narcisse." The magazine has included aromatic advertising for a couple of years now, but we found "Narcisse" brassier than usual. It reminded us of the olfactory free-fire zone on the first floor of Bloomingdale's. Later we called down to New York and spoke to a woman named Melissa, who confirmed for us that "Narcisse" is making its New Yorker debut.

We absorbed the new table of contents, which laid out for us precisely what is in the magazine, replacing the obscure brevity of the previous version with a profusion of department titles, teasers, and headlines. A relocated "Comment" piece, the magazine's editorial, which used to be tucked in at the front of "The Talk of the Town," now stands alone, up front and important, just after the table of contents.

Gone from "The Talk of the Town" are the first-person plural and the infamous introduction: "A friend writes...." Fine, we thought, conventions don't last forever. But we couldn't help thinking that the items - on the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar and on a New York Times writer who has AIDS, for instance - lack commonality of tone, and seem to float untethered. The section also eschews its finely-wrought, sometimes precious quirkiness in favor of topicality.

A new "Departments" section brings some medium-length items the magazine is known for (Andy Logan's "Around City Hall" in particular) closer to the front. But after reading about Sarajevo's press corps, devastation in South Florida, and the police riot in New York City, we felt awash in the news of the day. Then we proceeded to the issue's long, non-fiction piece - about a convict who says he is being muzzled because he has information about Vice President Dan Quayle using drugs. We have known about the convict and his allegations for years, but we were struck by how relevant the piece was.

Then we realized that this is what Brown has been promising us - a return to a more vital, current New Yorker, as it was under founding editor Harold Ross. Vanity Fair, after all, hasn't just been reporting what is current; it has been defining the cutting edge.

Finally we contemplated the weight of the magazine. Brown is printing her New Yorker on heavier stock, and advertisers have fattened up the issue with more ad pages than the publication has been used to.

A friend of ours in New York, who reads and writes for magazines, helped us understand why the heft seemed burdensome. "The promise of The New Yorker was that you would find some long piece on something you'd never heard of," he said. We remembered tucking into a good number of pieces like that ourselves, reading, say, the first 10,000 words or so in the first sitting, then folding the magazine to where we'd stopped and slipping it into a briefcase or a coat pocket for the ride to work.

It seems likely that Brown's New Yorker will have more in common with the conversation in a trendy restaurant or even a newsroom. But we wonder whether it will let us examine the unusual anymore.